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Gearing Up to Connect Minority Communities

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Submitted on June 17, 2021

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, June 18, 2021

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Kevin Taglang
Taglang

On June 15, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) released a final rule for a new pilot program focused on connecting minority communities. The Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program will provide grants to eligible historically Black colleges or universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges or Universities (TCUs), and Minority-serving institutions (MSIs) in anchor communities for broadband internet access service, equipment, or to hire information technology personnel to facilitate educational instruction including remote instruction, and to lend or provide equipment to eligible students or patrons. Congress created the pilot program in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, signed in December 2020. The law also created the Office of Minority Broadband Initiatives within the NTIA. 

Although the NTIA released a final rule, it has not yet released a Notice of Funding Opportunity. That is expected later this summer and will provide additional details about the available funds, how applications will be evaluated, and a timeline for awarding grants. But organizations and surrounding communities can confirm their eligibility now and start planning for an application.

Background

Many American communities, households, and critical anchor institutions lack sufficient broadband connectivity and experience significant challenges with digital inclusion, adoption, access, and equity, specifically within vulnerable communities, communities of color, and with students at HBCUs, TCUs, and MSIs.

In 2019, the NTIA launched the Minority Broadband Initiative (MBI), seeking to take a leading role on minority stakeholder engagement on broadband deployment in unserved and underserved areas of the country. NTIA partnered with HBCUs and TCUs.

The COVID– 19 pandemic has exacerbated inequities for students, faculty, and staff at HBCUs, TCUs, and MSIs.

What are Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program Grants For?

Congress directed NTIA to provide grants to eligible recipients in anchor communities for the purchase of broadband internet access service, any eligible equipment, or to hire and train information technology personnel to:

  1. Facilitate educational instruction and learning, including through remote instruction; or
  2. Operate a minority business enterprise; or
  3. Operate a 501(c)(3), tax-exempt organization.

Through the program, NTIA will directly address the lack of broadband access, connectivity, adoption, and equity at the nation’s HBCUs, TCUs, and MSIs and in their surrounding anchor communities. Funds may only be used for:

  1. The purchase of broadband internet access service, including the installation or upgrade of broadband facilities on a one-time, capital improvement basis in order to increase or expand broadband capacity and/or connectivity at the eligible institution;
  2. The purchase or lease of eligible equipment and devices for student or patron use; and
  3. To hire and train information technology personnel.

Grant recipients that provide broadband internet access service or eligible equipment to students must prioritize students in need and who do not have access to such equipment. Grant recipients may not transfer grant-funded equipment. 

Who is Eligible for Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program Grants?

Eligible Recipients

By law, eligible recipients must be:

  1. A historically Black college or university;
  2. A Tribal College or University;
  3. A Minority-serving institution; or
  4. A consortium that is led by a historically Black college or university, a Tribal College or University, or a Minority-serving institution and that also includes—
    • A Minority Business Enterprise; or
    • A 501(c)(3), tax-exempt organization.

NTIA will analyze available data to establish program eligibility as follows:

A) Eligible institutions must be designated in one of the seven categories delineated by the U.S. Department of Education

  1. historically Black college or university;
  2. Hispanic-serving institution;
  3. Tribal College or University;
  4. an Alaska Native-serving institution or a Native Hawaiian-serving institution;
  5. Predominantly Black Institution;
  6. an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institution; or
  7. Native American-serving nontribal institution.

B) Where the school type has been legislatively defined and a list of institutions is available from the Federal government (as is the case for HBCUs and TCUs), NTIA will use the data/ information provided by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) to verify their historical designation.

C) Where the Department of Education provides eligibility criteria but does not publish a definitive list of institutions (for example, Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander serving institution (AANAPISI), Hispanic-serving institution (HSI), Predominantly Black Institution (PBI), Alaska Native-serving institutions/Native Hawaiian-serving institution (ANNH), and Native American-serving, non-Tribal institution (NASNTI) designations), NTIA has defined the universe of eligible institutions as those institutions defined as eligible or potentially eligible in that category within this eligibility matrix.

NTIA estimates that the eligible institutions include:

  • 501 Hispanic-serving institutions
  • 336 Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institutions
  • 104 Predominantly Black institutions
  • 102 historically Black colleges and universities
  • 66 Alaska Native-serving institution/Native Hawaiian-serving institutions
  • 37 Tribal Colleges and Universities
  • 32 Native American-serving, non-Tribal institutions

Identifying Eligible Anchor Communities

Communities that are eligible for Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program grants must be located within a 15-mile radius (1) of the above eligible institutions and meet an estimated median annual household income of not more than 250 percent of the poverty line. NTIA will use median household income estimates from the most recent U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) for each census tract falling wholly or partially within the applicable area. For each relevant census tract, NTIA will compare the median household income estimate with the most recent poverty thresholds published by the Census Bureau. NTIA will use the weighted average poverty threshold that corresponds to the mean household size in each tract. NTIA is aiming to ensure that the program’s eligibility standards include as many communities in need as possible. If the median household income of a census tract does not exceed 2.5 times the applicable weighted average poverty threshold, that tract will be considered part of the anchor community.

Calculating Unmet Need

Grant funds will be allocated to the applicants with the greatest unmet financial needs. To determine which eligible recipients have students with the greatest unmet financial needs, each applying eligible institution must provide the following information in their application for funding: 

  • Student population size;
  • Number and percentage of students that are eligible to receive Federal Pell Grants;
  • Number and percentage of students that receive other need-based financial aid from the Federal government, a State, or that institution;
  • Number and percentage of students that qualify as low-income consumers; 
  • Number and percentage of students that are low-income individuals; and
  • Number and percentage of students that have been approved to receive unemployment insurance benefits under any Federal or State law since March 1, 2020.

Minority Business Enterprises

NTIA will require that a consortium applicant that is a Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) self-certify that it is an MBE-designated entity. For consortium applicants that claim tax-exempt status, NTIA will utilize the Internal Revenue Service’s 501(c)(3) certification portal/database to verify the organization’s 501(c)(3) status.

How Much Support is Available?

Congress allocated $286 million for the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program. At least 40 percent of the grant funds awarded will be set aside for distribution to qualifying historically Black colleges or universities. And at least 20 percent of grant funds awarded will be set aside for eligible HBCUs, TCUs, and MSIs to provide broadband internet access service or eligible equipment to their students

Timeline

This final rule describes NTIA’s programmatic scope, eligibility criteria, and general guidelines for the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program. NTIA will subsequently publish a Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) which will set the deadline for grant applications. 

This article is meant to serve as a quick summary of the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program. There are more details in the Final Rule. For communities interested in applying for a grant, we encourage you to carefully read NTIA’s full notice. NTIA is also holding a series of webinars to further inform the public about the program. The next Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program webinar will be held on June 23 and 24.

Notes:

For Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCU) located on land held in trust by the United States that are also located within a reservation, the boundary of the reservation on which the TCU falls will be substituted for the 15-mile buffer to create an area of interest (AOI) for each institution. These AOIs will be used to define the institution’s anchor community boundary.

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